It’s easy to imagine the days of old-time Hawaii at places like Lapakahi State Historical Park, where visitors can see firsthand how the ancestors of these islands once lived, worked and played.
The park is a Big Island historical gem tucked away along the rocky, arid coast of Kohala District, roughly a dozen miles north of the small, industrial port town of Kawaihae, and features a range of carefully restored structures exemplifying the early days of the village’s 600-year-old past. Visitors to the park pass by canoe storage sheds, coastal “hales” (houses), traditional stone tools and furniture, and an intricate maze of unmortared lava rock wall bordering the footpaths and crowding the shoreline. For anyone interested in traditional Polynesian rock wall building, this place is a must-see on the island and a great example of the craftsmanship of the ancients. The intricacy of these painstakingly stacked structures is astounding; they span across the beachfront in seemingly perfect columns, with occasional breaks large enough to let just a single human through.
The park’s name – lapa kahi – means “single ridge” in the Hawaiian language and refers to the ancient land division that existed here more than half a millennia ago. Back then, the entire island was divided into narrow pie slices spanning from verdant upland taro farms growing the ubiquitous staple crop all the way down to the sea-level communities of fishermen, banana farmers and breadfruit growers. The monarchy reigning over the island organized its subjects this way, and the inhabitants of each land slice traded among themselves for what they needed: fish making its way up the mountain slopes, and taro coming down to the coast. This was called an “ahupua’a” (ah-hoo-poo-ah-ah) and was how land was organized in the time of old Hawaii similar to the political districts found on Big Island today.
So, Lapakahi was a fishing village at the bottom of the ahupua’a, whose generations of fishermen would ply the waters just off of the coast of black lava boulders and white coral, casting out their nets and pulling in piles of fat, succulent fish like ono, ahi and mahi-mahi. They would trade their catch with upland farmers living on the slopes of Kohala Mountain – the northernmost of the five volcanoes making up Big Island’s entire landmass. This system of trade was what the ancient economy of the island was based on, and still survives intact in some places, though in a much more informal sense. It has left a legacy of Big Island farmers, hunters and fishermen bartering their excess harvest for the goods they can’t produce themselves with friends and family living far away.
And it wasn’t just fish being produced down at the coast, either; to this day at Lapakahi visitors can see examples of ancient salt pans – bowl-shaped carved black lava stones used for drying ocean water in the sun and collecting the salt left behind. This was the only method the ancients had to produce the crucial foodstuff, since the island is comprised of basalt volcanic rock with no mineral deposits. Traditionally the salt, known as “pa’akai” in Hawaiian, was used to preserve fish and season food, and was a highly valued commodity due to the painstaking process in creating it.
There were also groves of kukui nut trees, sometimes called “candlenut”, planted at the low elevations, which produced an oil-rich native Hawaiian nut burned in traditional lamps. Lamp stands which long ago burned kukui nut oil can still be seen at the historical park, which were likely used all the way up until the 19th Century.
Down the coastline from Lapakahi’s main parking lot is a large thatch-roof hut complete with walls of woven grass, an A-frame of skinny bamboo poles and a square courtyard of low stacked rock walls. This is the structure featured in many of the photos of the park, and is arguably the most interesting of all the structures standing on its grounds. From the walled-in courtyard, this spot offers a fantastic panorama of the maze of rock walls lining the shore, the surrounding dry scrubland of stout, thorny keawe trees, and beyond that the rolling flanks of Kohala Mountain shrouded in eternal clouds. The seaside hut is a reconstructed dwelling, and the original house occupying the site was used as living quarters well into the 1900s.
The Vibrant Marine Life Conservation District Just Offshore
Big Island’s North Kohala Coast boasts a rich diversity of sea life found milling about in the warm, shallow inland waters. Tropical species of fish and coral account for much of this biodiversity, and few places on the island harbor more of it than along this stretch of coastline making up the historical park’s boundary. This is great news for swimmers and snorkelers, who frequent the nearby Koaie Cove looking for schools of fish, urchins, eels, sea stars and the occasional turtle.
Common fish found just offshore at Lapakahi include several species of butterflyfish, recognized by their long snouts used for probing the reef’s nooks and crannies looking for small invertebrates, as well as the yellow tang – a type of surgeonfish and one of the most iconic to be spotted in Big Island’s waters. Snorkelers sometimes notice them grazing on the algae growing on the backs of the endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. It’s also a great place to see stands of the intricately textured cauliflower coral, which thrives in the offshore reef’s sunny shallows and provides an important habitat for several different strata of coastal sea life.
There is very little beach to speak of along the park’s shoreline, so swimmers and snorkelers should use extreme caution while getting in and out of the water, and to keep in mind that there is no lifeguard on duty here. Intimidating-looking bluffs of jagged black rock stick out into the bay, and are regularly assaulted by ranks of charging white-capped waves coming in from the open ocean. These conditions make going for a dip here difficult sometimes, with just a few reliably safe spots with strong rip currents present just beyond their peaceful waters. With so many better, safer beaches found just a few miles down the road around the town of Kawaihae, such as Spencer Beach Park and Hapuna Beach, it’s advisable that those new to the island or who aren’t strong swimmers steer clear of the ocean at Lapakahi Park.
How To Get to Lapakahi State Historical Park
Lapakahi State Historical Park is easiest to access from the main West Hawaii town of Kona – Big Island’s primary tourism hub and the best spot to pick up beach and hiking supplies for trips to the Kohala Coast. Head north along Highway 19, otherwise known as Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, for roughly 35 miles until the road forks, and turning left will bring visitors to the industrial port town of Kawaihae in less than half a mile. Continue through the town, and turn onto Highway 270, otherwise known as Akoni Pule Highway, which runs another 20 miles north to the town of Hawi and the northern tip of the island.
After driving about twelve miles north on Highway 270, past the turn for the Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company and its showroom of free samples and dizzyingly good coffee, signs for Lapakahi Park will come into view near mile marker 14, and turning left here will bring drivers onto a narrow two-lane road that leads to a parking lot after dropping a few hundred feet down the hill. A park ranger is usually on duty at the modern-looking building in the middle of the lot, however guided tours of the stone ruins and heritage.